Monday, April 24, 2017

Graph Math

Yo yo yo, hey there everybody, and many salaams from a cold and windy New York City.  I have been back in the States just about one week and, aside from missing Drogo (the best housecat in all of Tanzania), I am starting to enjoy Western amenities once again.

For one thing, abundant and unfettered Wi-Fi at all hours of the day and night makes my heart sing with joy.  It truly does help to have access to the best technology when trying to address these "off-the-ground" tasks that Toa operations require.

When I'm in Moshi, I am almost glad when I can't get online as I have generally been in school all day, surrounded by over-excited munchkins and trying to make myself understood in another language.

Either that, or taking meetings with local government types trying to make myself understood in my own language but regarding concepts that at times seem so foreign to them, we might as well all be speaking Mandarin.

So, suffice it to say, it's nice to be able to work freely on the computer and not have to worry about auto-saving every five seconds....just in case!

One thing I've been in a big hurry to post are the results of our third test of last year's cohorts, something I had trouble doing from Tanzania due to PDF - TIFF - JPEG yadda yadda.

As you all know from a couple blog entries back, Kaitlin and I went to see Angi in Zanzibar at the end of March where we were schooled in the art of data entry.  Once entered, this data informs the graphs that Angi creates demonstrating the efficacy of our Project.

For 2016, we have now tested the cohorts at each school for the third and final time and, as expected, the biggest change occurred within the first six months.  Still, it is heartwarming to see that within the second six months, the students were able to keep up with their studies.  This bodes well for their next few years of primary school, in which we hope they will continue to succeed on their own, now knowing coping mechanisms to help them work independently.

Two of our four schools had some shida or problems last year with testing and subsequent data entry, so below please find Angi's graphs for the remaining two.

The numbers speak for themselves, my friends!  The Toa Nafasi intervention at these two schools for the 2016 cohorts have been a grand success!!


Friday, April 21, 2017

Usonji Month

I think most of you will remember that April 2nd of every year is World Autism Awareness Day or in Kiswahili, Siku ya Usonji Duniani.  You can refresh your memories with our posts from last year ( and the year before (

This year we celebrated with the kids from the Gabriella Children's Rehabilitation Center, where we board five students from Msaranga Primary School whose intellectual impairments prevent them from remaining within the public school system.  They are not autistic, per se, but each has issues of developmental delay so they need the extra support and resources that Gabriella has to offer.

Two of these students, Danny and Vincent, have become master drummers as a result of their time at Gabriella!  In addition to making friends and learning appropriate social behaviors as well as studying basic literacy and numeracy skills, the Center helps kids with such impairments to channel excess energy into creative activities.  Some kids love to draw or paint, others like to make things with beads or leather, others still take to farming and planting, and then there is music and dance.

Because the main organizers of Usonji Day chose to focus on next year's celebration in a big way, not too much was done this year on April 2nd itself.  There was no march to the stadium, no speeches, no lunch.  So Gabriella decided they would embark on a month-long celebration of autism awareness and kicked it off with a series of road shows around Moshi in which the kids performed and the Gabriella staff spread the word about what autism is, how it can be coped with, what to do if you suspect your child is autistic, etc.  Check below for some footage of these great road shows!


Practice makes perfect!  Here are Danny and Vincent drumming to their hearts' content with Mzee leading the beat at the Gabriella Center.

Performance ready!  The boys await their first road show in the Kiboriloni marketplace while the Toa staff (and Kaitlin!) look on in their Toa garb.

Time for their close-up!


And finally it's showtime!!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Printed Hints

Hi everyone, and apologies once again for the long delay in posting.  Things got quite hectic after our Zanzibar trip and the subsequent flu we suffered.  Then, it was two weeks back in Moshi full-on preparing for my early departure this year and making sure Kaitlin would be okay on her own.

At any rate, I am currently back in NYC attending to some Toa-related off-the-ground business - the website, for one, requires my immediate attention, and of course, chasing up fundraising opportunities will keep me busy for a bit.

Now, especially that we were unsuccessful with the Echoing Green fellowship, it is important that I devote a bit more time stateside to seek out new and diverse sources of funding.  With Carla's new ideas and support and Kaitlin's energy and enthusiasm, I think we have some good leads, but 2016 and 2017 have definitely had a different "feel" fundraising-wise, and Toa needs to adapt accordingly.

Anyway, this little missive will be a brief one about branding, something many people might find superficial and of little import, but that is actually pretty important in the world of name-building, fundraising, and furthering the Toa professional persona.

Earlier this year I had been bemoaning to someone or other (Carla?  Gasto??  Kaitlin???  Hyasinta????  Probably all of the above....!) that there was no place in Moshi to do bulk printing and other "office superstore" type activities.  (Here in NYC, I used to take Staples for granted; now, I realize Staples is a blessing sent from God to developed countries!).

But then I got the hook-up.

Enter Rishi Jotangia of Ramotec, a lovely Indian man who owns the closest thing to Staples Moshi has to offer, a hidden gem in the heart of town.

With Rishi's help, I have been able to print easily: 600+ assessments, 10 assessments kits, 400+ parent questionnaires, hundreds of Angi's graphs to pass out to the parents as proof of the efficacy of our Project, and various other bits and pieces.  All streamlined and Toa-branded.

In addition, with Rishi's amazing ability to produce exactly what is needed on time and per cost, we have established a new incentive for the teachers, a "Teacher of the Month" plaque, which we have now bestowed upon two Toa staff members.

February's plaque went to Mwalimu Sia whose work on the assessments was outstanding.  Sia went above and beyond to test each child at Msandaka Primary School correctly, filling the assessments out clearly and thoroughly with notes that made it obvious she was attentive to each student she tested.  Hongera sana, Sia!

The March plaque went to Mwalimu Mshiu, our resident old-schooler.  A retired government school teacher, Mshiu joined Toa after Vumi's death, but has since decided that she is ready to retire in earnest so has recently left Toa.  Just before she did, however, we gave her a plaque for her remarkable work with Kaitlin during the observation period.

Tanzanians are typically pretty gun-shy about asking questions.  Culturally, it is not done perhaps because it is expected that one should understand a concept after just one explanation and there is some shame in having to have that concept repeated.  Of course, this is the diametric opposite of how Westerners approach a new concept.  We generally ask questions ad nauseum until we are 100% sure of what is going on, what is expected of us, and how we are to approach the given task.  There is no shame in question-asking for us, generally.  Rather, asking questions generally signifies an interest in something new, a desire to learn, and a commitment to doing a job well.

At any rate, it was surprising to me to hear from Kaitlin that old-school Mshiu was full of questions when it came to filling out the observation forms.  These forms require our teachers to observe each new student over a two-week period and write about: gross and fine motor skills; social behaviors; cleanliness and adaptive behaviors; literacy and numeracy; vision, hearing, and speaking skills.  According to Kaitlin, Mama Mshiu was all about learning how to fill these forms out properly, asking questions left and right, and wanting to know what each field means.

So, serendipitously, Mama Mshiu earned her stars in her last month with Toa and went out with a bang.  Who will get the April plaque is anyone's guess, but I will be excited to find out, even from afar!  Now that Team Toa is back on track, I expect these ladies to give each other a run for their money when it comes to performance.  And I will enjoy every second of that!!

Finally, a last note in Toa branding is the TZ staple of an advertising wheelcover.  Originally, Rishi had designed a much more commercial cover (tagline and website included) but since Moshi is such a small town, I thought it better to go simple with just the logo on a white background.  What do you guys think?!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

From Zanzibar, with Love

Hi all, a little late to post this one as we have been back from Zanzibar a week now; but we did not come back alone, rather with a flu somewhere on par with the Bubonic, so forgive my tardiness in writing. 

As you may recall, our educational consultant, Angi Stone-MacDonald, is in Zanzibar at the State University for the academic year 2016-2017, and has been unable to come to Moshi.  So, Moshi just had to go to her! 

Needing her wisdom on how to enter the data we've culled from the children's assessments, I went armed with last year's 3rd tests and an irrational fear of Excel spreadsheets. 

Not wanting to brave the world of cells and sums alone, I took my lil' liege, Kaitlin, along for the ride and off we went to Stone Town. 

Though we did indeed do work on Thursday and Friday, I will say that a fair part of our trip was NSFW, which is what you get when you put together a 19-year-old and a 42-year-old (median age = 30.5years) after two months of solid, nonstop, grueling fieldwork, and send them off to an exotic island with fruity drinks. 

Just kidding, we were very well-behaved, and I totally killed at Excel.  But we did both manage to come down with the flu and basically crawled our way back to Moshi. 

Since then, it's been a long road back to recovery, but we made it to school on Thursday and Friday of this week and imparted our newfound wisdom on to the teachers. 

Below, check out a view of the Indian Ocean; my selfie; what our Excel spreadsheets should look like; Kaitlin dying on the plane back to Moshi; and a video of the teachers this past week sorting the new exams for us to begin data entry for 2017.  Hurrahs all around!


Friday, March 17, 2017

Marrs Attacks!

Do you guys remember the movie "Mars Attacks!"?  It was a Tim Burton sort of dark comic sci-fi that came out in 1996??  Jack Nicholson as the fictional POTUS uttered these words, which somehow ring kinda true today: "I want the people to know that they still have 2 out of 3 branches of the government working for them, and that ain't bad."

Well, this post is about someone who was born the year after that movie hit theaters and the same year I graduated college.  (No comments, please....)

Meet Kaitlin Durdan Marrs, a nineteen-year-old New Yawker transplanted to Boulder for her freshman year of college.  Wait a sec, make that transplanted to Boulder and then to TANZANIA for her spring semester freshman year.  (Okay, it must be said, or rather sighed, "Ahh, to be young!"

The daughter of a former tax law protege of my dad's, Kaitlin has been with us nearly six weeks already, but since we're all "hapa kazi tu" these days, I'm just now getting around to introducing the wee one.

Fresh on the heels of Heidi's departure (a mutual decision on both hers and Toa's parts), Kaitlin has come to spend the months of February, March, and April working with Toa Nafasi AND still taking a full course-load at University of Colorado.  (Again, do we all remember youth and how amazing it was?!)

February was busy with Carla (who ADORED Ms. Marrs) and the teacher meltdown, and March has been busy with rectifying the meltdown and my case of amoebic dysentery that had me laid low for a solid two weeks, during which Kaitlin took over like a champ and ran the program in my stead.  (Did I mention she's really young and full of energy?)

Ostensibly here to work with the kids, with whom she feels a sort of kinship as she also suffered learning difficulties and unsympathetic teachers as a child, she actually has become a champion of the teachers as this most recent drama unfolded.  And, we couldn't be happier to have her!

Here's Kaitlin in her own words.  Enjoy!!


"I come to keep the peace among the teachers."

Hey there, Toa followers!  Kaitlin here, Toa's newest addition.  I touched down in Moshi the beginning of last month and jumped right in, tackling the motivational lag within the Toa community.

I have been working alongside Sarah to develop a series of leadership and empowerment groups to run with the teachers in the hopes of reviving the team environment, and preparing them for the year to come.

While my primary focus is Toa Nafasi, I am also writing a research paper for my International Affairs degree on the importance of intercultural communication within INGOs as it applies to my experiences here.

I do believe it is safe to say this topic has proven to be more applicable than I could have ever predicted!  Can't wait to see what happens next!!


And here's a photo of Marrs attacking our girl squad of teachers and working her team-building magic.  They sure look the part, don't they?  Hopefully, by this month's end, we'll be a team in true contention.

Monday, March 13, 2017

"Word Up."

A sentiment of acknowledgement or approval, an indication of enthusiasm.

The damn truth, definitely.

Basically, "I comprehend what you are saying and verify that your statement is true, my good brother." 

Again, not much more to say than what's printed here, from The Citizen.  Major shida that needs to be addressed ASAP.


Tanzania: Pupils Stare At Bleak Future in Skewed Teacher Allocation Plan

Public primary schools in rural areas, still battling with an acute shortage of teachers, may have to wait a little longer for relief, official data that reveals the glaring uneven distribution of teaching staff across the country suggests. 

The government, which has announced that it would recruit over 40,000 teachers, faces a Herculean task to address the disparities that have had a hard-hitting impact on schools in rural areas. 

A recent analysis by The Citizen of dataset dubbed 'Pupil to Teacher Ratio in Government Primary schools in 2016' as of March last year, reveals that some regions with low enrollment have more teachers than those with the highest number of pupils. 

It's a contradiction that has, for years, created unequal learning opportunities between pupils in state-run schools in Kilimanjaro, Arusha, and Dar es Salaam, who have adequate teachers, and their counterparts in Kigoma, Mara, Mwanza, and Rukwa where there are critical shortages of teaching staff. 

Data from the government's open data portal, which The Citizen verified through physical visits to selected schools in these regions, reveals that inequality in teacher distribution plays a major role in academic performance, with disadvantaged areas doing badly in the Standard 7 national exams. 

Even in cities where the majority teachers prefer to live, there is still glaring inconsistency in how teachers are distributed with Arusha having more numbers than Dar es Salaam, Mbeya, Tanga, and Mwanza. 

For example, Dar es Salaam had 485,389 pupils and 12,813 teachers, almost the same number with Mwanza, which had 627,695 pupils.  Mwanza, which had 142,306 more pupils than Dar es Salaam, had 12,833 teachers only. 

With a total enrollment of 333,601 pupils in primary schools by March last year, Simiyu Region had 71,484 more pupils than Arusha (262,117 pupils), but it had only 7,093 teachers, while the latter had 7,605 teachers, according to the data.  This means Arusha had 500 more teachers than Simiyu despite having a relatively low enrollment. 

The pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) in Simiyu stood at 52 against Arusha's 37, making it one of the 10 regions with the lowest number of teachers.  And while more than half of public primary schools in Ruvuma have pupil-teacher ratio above the normal standard of one teacher for 40 pupils, in Kilimanjaro, more than three quarters of the schools enjoy the best PTR. 

Data shows that Kilimanjaro with 253,263 pupils had 8,279 teachers, about 1,962 more than Ruvuma with a larger number of pupils.  Ruvuma, a southwestern region with a PTR of 47, had a total enrollment of 271,701, but had 6,341 teachers only. 

Though it has been claimed that the availability of teachers alone does not guarantee quality of education, Dar es Salaam, Kilimanjaro, and Arusha, which top all the regions in numbers of teachers, have been performing well in the past Primary School Leaving Exams (PSLE). 

The three regions have been clinching top 10 positions almost every year, including 2016, while regions like Kigoma, Dodoma, and Tabora lag behind. 

Generally, Tanzania has persistently faced a serious shortage of teachers in both primary and secondary public schools, particularly for science and mathematics subjects. 

By the end of December last year, according to data obtained by The Citizen from the President's Office, Regional Administration and Local Government, the nation was short of 47,151 teachers for public primary schools.  That may be a conservative figure - the situation could be worse, independent sources of data suggest. 

A 2014 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)'s Institute for Statistics (UIS) says Tanzania needs to recruit at least 406,600 new teachers by 2030.  This translates to an average of 25,412 teachers' recruitment annually from back then. 

The reason for higher numbers of teachers in urban schools is a no-brainer.  Rural schools lack the basic facilities that can attract even an average, less-experienced teacher. 

Most run with no classrooms, no desks and chairs, no clean and safe water, and no decent houses for teachers.  Getting to some of the schools in remote areas is a nightmare.  There are no proper roads, no electricity.  Teachers are forced to walk for hours to the nearest town. 

If they are to use a bodaboda to get to the nearest bus stops, they have to dig deeper into their pockets - despite the fact their monthly salaries are hardly enough for basics. 

In some regions, where The Citizen visited recently, a teacher has to build his own grass-thatched mud house on arrival because there are no houses - not even to rent.  In short, the working environment is pathetic and unbearable.  For those who have endured over the years, it's been a life of sacrifice all the way. 

At Chohero Primary School in the Mvomero District of Morogoro, for instance, the two teachers who handle 510 pupils walk almost 20 kilometres to the nearest bus stop.  Last year, only six out of the 49 Standard 7 pupils who sat the PSLE passed with an average of C. 

In an interview with The Citizen, Kigoma Regional Education Officer, Omari Mkombole, said the uneven distribution of teachers was a direct result of the difficult life in most rural areas.  Teachers who quit join private schools in town. 

"If the government provides more incentives for teachers, they may be motivated to teach in rural areas.  In Kigoma, we will prepare our own package to retain teachers; directives have already been sent to all District Commissioners," he said. 

Mr. Juma Kaponda, the Director of Education Management in the President's Office (Regional Administration and Local Government), says the disparity in distribution is due to a number of reasons, but mainly health and social factors affecting teachers.  Married couples prefer working in the same area, and there are teachers with health complications - these would want to be close to hospitals. 

But Mr. Kaponda admitted that the disparities had proven costly, and the government was working on rectifying them.  "Teachers in areas with critical shortages are being overworked, reducing their efficiency and producing poor results," he says. 

"Directives have already been issued to municipal councils to ensure that they re-allocate teachers to fill gaps in those areas facing scarcity.  Also, this year the government will employ 40,000 teachers for primary and 10,169 science and mathematics teachers for secondary schools to fill the gap," adds Mr. Kaponda. 

For education experts, the disparity betrays the absence of a clear policy on incentives for teachers living in harsh environments.  Dr. Luka Mkonongwa, a lecturer at the Dar es Salaam University College of Education (DUCE), reveals just how bad the situation can be.  "Due to poor working conditions in many rural areas, some teachers are forced to lie that they are suffering from certain diseases in order to be transferred," he says. 

He also says the opportunity to relocate due to marriage is also leaving some female teachers with no option but accepting marriage proposals only from men living in towns. 

"It's very difficult to block transfers where marriage or sickness is cited as the reason for a request.  Therefore, there is no long or short term measure that can solve this problem without investing in better social services across the country, and providing special incentives to teachers living in rural areas."

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Follow the Leader

This past week, we underwent some drama with the teachers and their lack of motivation.  I would have been at my wit's end (done under also by a bout of amoebic dysentery - NOT pretty) except that wee Kaitlin was here to help.

And help she did.  Our tiny taskmaster took charge like a boss and whereas my kvetching at our, primarily well-meaning and generally effective, teaching staff, fell on deaf ears, her exercises in leadership intervention and our new catchphrase of "team-building through communication and trust" turned a mini mutiny into calm seas.
After all, we cannot help the kids we are meant to if our team is broken and the teachers are not invested.  How then, to get them invested and to recognize that working for Toa is not about making this mzungu happy, but rather about creating a professional persona for each of these young ladies where one did not exist before.

It's a new thought for sure, and perhaps I took for granted that they saw it all along.  It may have been just about a paycheck for them in the past, which is totally fine, but I wanted them to see that by showing up late or leaving early, not coming at all or coming and then not being active, the person they are letting down is not ME.

Rather, walimu wetu, it is your students who are counting on learning their lessons, it is your colleagues with whom you share the workload, and it is you yourself, who deserves, and can achieve, more than a paltry monthly stipend and the confines of a rural shamba.

In the spirit of this past week's International Women's Day, let's be bold, let's be the change!

In the videos and diagram below, we all tried an exercise to figure out what kinds of leaders we are: flexible, people-pleaser types; opinionated stand-takers; unemotional analysts; or impassioned forces of nature.  Check it out!!